The year was 2014. Social media adoption in the largest democracy, India, wasn't as prevalent as we know it today. It was, however, enough to be employed as a supplementary campaign tool for propelling the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the biggest parliamentary victory in forty years.
But as we inch closer to the 17th Lok Sabha elections, the stakes are even higher. The number of internet users has more than doubled, mobile data prices have nosedived by a magnitude in thousands, capable smartphones can be purchased in less than $100, and most importantly, social media platforms are no longer harmless tools.
Dominated by a mobile-first audience, apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube have thrived and went on to replacing mainstream mediums as Indians' primary source of information. Information that isn't always accurate and often tarnished with propaganda or simply a victim of the race for forwarding the most dramatic piece of content. And since some of them are sealed through a layer of end-to-end encryption, exponents have nothing short of an opaque megaphone at their disposal.
File photo of voters at a polling booth in Madhya Pradesh. PTI
But just to put things into perspective, these are the active users on various social media platforms in India: WhatsApp has 200 mn, Facebook has 300 mn, Twitter has 35 mn, Instagram has 75 mn and YouTube has around 250 mn monthly active users.
In the past year or two, misinformation has disseminated exponentially throughout the country. It has led to virulent fallouts such as misleading mobsters into lynching more than thirty innocent people, tricking citizens into believing there's a tracking chip in the newly distributed denominations, and more.
Bracing for impact
While the tech giants scramble to mend their platforms' most glaring shortcomings in a hope to avert being at the centre of another political controversy " this time involving a population of over a billion people (about 900 million of which are expected to vote), a group of fact-checking crusaders who have taken up the mantle of debunking the most influential hoaxes are gearing up to brace for impact.
India's internet boom in 2015 spawned a spurt of fake news throughout the country. But while these behaviours were crippling India's online environment, a series of advocates felt the absence of a filter. Since then, a multitude of fact-checking websites has emerged in India hoping to assuage the growing fake news culture, one conspiracy at a time.
Some simply began as a public service, whereas others extended their media arms to introduce a fact-checking platform.
"I used to try and debunk the ones that came across to me. Then I decided to share my findings with the public as well," said Shammas Oliyath, an engineer who co-founded Check4Spam along with his friend, Bal Krishna Birla, while working as an IT professional in Bangalore.
Pratik Sinha, the founder of Alt News and Pankaj Jain of SM Hoax Slayer had similar beginnings as well. Jain, who runs a business during the day, switches to his hoax slayer role at night and goes through all the queries he has been forwarded by other people on WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. Unlike Jain, however, Sinha's Alt News is powered by a small team of journalists and volunteers who produce stories as well as videos to reach out to a larger audience.
The process is straightforward. Sift through the most controversial false stories " sent either through social media platforms like WhatsApp or hotlines " research the proof to back their claims, and publish it on the website. Today, fact-checking websites like Check4Spam, Alt News, SM Hoax Slayer, Factly, Boom Live and more are debunking about half a dozen hoaxes every day.
From composed to chaos
With accessible and advancing technologies, however, tackling even a single scam often can be nothing short of a herculean task and consume hours of investigation.
"These days, there are many videos coming up that are sort of untraceable. Even video forensics does not always result in anything. So, for instance, there have been two viral videos of the Ethiopian airlines crash. One is taken from outside showing that the plane is dropping down and one from inside of the cabin. So, I knew I had seen these videos before. I knew this wasn't right. But I was unable to find the source. So sometimes we work hard for hours and still no results come up," said SM Hoax Slayer's Jain in a phone interview.
SM Hoax Slayer has a WhatsApp number where you can send messages which you want to get fact-checked.
Check4Spam's Oliyath discussed a similar hurdle as well. He stated, "For many posts, we have noticed a good amount of effort being applied to create them as well. Today, we believe that every political party has IT wings which work to generate posts, either to highlight their party or to belittle the other. In some cases, for example, Wikipedia articles are also updated to provide strength to the story that is being circulated."
Modern trickery, unfortunately, isn't the only challenge these websites have to deal with. Areas that suffer from poor literacy rates is where the majority of extreme consequences of unverified WhatsApp forwards have taken place " areas where the presence of online websites like Alt News or Check4Spam is non-existent.
"The main challenge of fact-checking is that it has to reach the people falling for this misinformation. At this point of time, a lot of people in tier 2, tier 3 towns and rural areas are not able to be reached out to, even though we do a fact-check in both English and Hindi. We have an online presence, but if organisations who have other presences in print, for instance, get into fact-checking in an organised manner, then those people will be able to get the verified information," mentioned Sinha.
Preparing for a months-long ordeal
With the general elections looming over the horizon, fact-checking websites barely have any time to recalibrate or ponder on those fundamental issues. Jain from SM Hoax Slayer, for instance, has recruited a bunch of students from journalism schools to assist him in handling the forthcoming deluge. "I have given them some training and they would be looking for fake news. I will be forwarding them on WhatsApp as well, which should cover most bases," he said.
Check4Spam, on the contrary, has been pushing a different approach for ensuring citizens don't fall prey to the provocative messages they receive on WhatsApp. The publication has built a rudimentary custom search engine based on Google which allows anyone to quickly look up existing fact-check articles on a specific topic. "We strongly feel the best way to fight fake news is by educating the people to do their share of fact-checking before sharing anything with others," Oliyath added.
Factly, a data-driven publication which was also selected for the Google News Initiative program and operates in a couple of regional languages, is ramping up its team in anticipation of the misinformation influx. "We are also doing a series of '100 Fact Checks' on the claims of the performance of this government and have also prepared a special section with stories related to election law, rules, funding etc. We are also doing a special show on elections as well," stated Rakesh Dubbudu who is one of the founders of Factly.
Of course, manual fact-checking can take you only so far. A few of these groups, therefore, are turning to technology. Check4Spam, for instance, is engineering a more efficient and user-friendly app for its Nokiye search engine. It's expected to have a bunch of additional options such as filters for locations, languages, what have you.
Alt News, on the other hand, is working on an app which will let users simply import a picture or video and learn whether it's doctored. If the media is not yet in Alt News' servers, it will be added to the pool for review and the user will eventually get a response. The app will be built on top of a perceptual hashing algorithm which will be capable of breaking down videos in their individual frames and comparing the outcomes screen by screen.
Moreover, a band of students from IIIT-Delhi has released an app titled WhatsFarzi. Through a string of image tampering networks, the app can verify pictures for authenticity.
To expand their reach, several fact-checking platforms such as Factly and Boom Live have also partnered with Facebook. What that entails essentially is rating pieces of content that they come across and are reported to them through various channels. That also includes reviewing the posts users report through the available options beside each of them.
What about the actions already taken by tech companies?
So with nearly every technology company taking strident steps for curbing fake news and the availability of these websites, is India at all ready for the elections? Depends on who you ask.
"Steps that have been taken are very minimalistic. So no, we haven't really seen much difference in how people are sharing misinformation. They continue to share misinformation at a quick pace," argued Alt News' Sinha.
"Considering how it was a year or two back, I think people are less prone to believe anything that they come across, but there is more to catch up with. So the signs are good for a possibly less fake future, provided handling "deep fakes" or anything more to come in future, will find its place as well," commented Check4Spam's Oliyath.
There's no straight line to overcoming this quagmire the nation is in either. While holding sources accountable seems like an obvious answer, it's hardly feasible since the country's most active fake news medium, WhatsApp, is a messaging app and encrypted end-to-end. India's political parties are said to have formed thousands of groups to make sure the new forward limit doesn't hamper their campaigns.
Alt News has emerged as one of the most popular fact-checking websites in India
The foremost thing to do here is to disabuse yourself of the illusion that fake news will ever be eradicated as a whole. Most of the efforts executed by companies and fact-checking websites are towards suppressing them to a point where they don't cause destructive repercussions.
"It has to be a multi-pronged approach," explained Sinha. "One obviously is that the journalistic approach has to continue and more and more organisations have to take part in it. Secondly, social media companies have to figure out ways. Right now, they have partnerships with fact-checkers. But they (social media sites) need to use tech and need to reach more people who are foreign to misinformation. We live in a world where even 12-year kids are on WhatsApp. There's so much information overload. Not just misinformation, but all kinds of misinformation. It has to be included in a curriculum so that kids can know how to deal with so much information and recognise misinformation."
Irrespective of which party ends up governing India for the next five years, it's clear the next few months will be a grave juggling act for everyone. Be it the citizens, government, technology companies, or the fact-checking websites. The initiatives announced by social platforms have been largely ineffective and leave facile workarounds that are already being exploited. For now, it will come down to public awareness and how rapidly fact-checkers are able to quell misleading stories.
Factly co-founder Dubuddu's closing remarks sum up the situation we're in today, "All the stakeholders are in it together, such as the government, platforms, media, civil society, citizens, academia and others."
The burden of the rampant proliferation of misinformation in India doesn't merely rest on these websites' or tech companies' shoulders. At its core, it's a community mess which can only be curbed when the country's citizens voluntarily take action and exercise caution themselves as well as urge others especially before passing on that unverified forward. Because we're living a world where a viral forward is all that's necessary for someone to lose their life.